A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

While researching last week’s post on “stupid things people do,” I came across a post on weird flute customs found in both Melanesia and a few little tribes in the Amazon rainforest: Gender Ideology Reflected in Flute Symbology of Various New Guinea and South American Cultures:

Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.

Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.

There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.

IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.

Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?

At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.

But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.

(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)

Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.

If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.

There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.

One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.

Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.

Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.

But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.

Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.

Russia is cold.

But potatoes grow really well in central and eastern Europe.

map of potato production

Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.

The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.

Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.

Potato Madness

this_is_a_potatoThis is a potato.

Bake it, and you have a healthy, nutritious dinner that you can serve your family and feel good about.

That seems simple enough.

However, the potato would like to clarify some potential confusion about its culinary uses:


18rnflcoijyr0jpgThis is a potato that has been chopped up and deep fried.

Make it from scratch in the morning, and you are not just a good mom, but an excellent mom.

You can’t really eat them for dinner, unless you’re at IHOP or celebrating Chanukah.


Picture 11This is a potato that has been chopped up, deep fried, and served with a side of pickled tomatoes.

It is never for breakfast, except maybe if you are on a roadtrip and there’s nothing else available. If so, we will pretend it never happened.

Serve it for breakfast any other time, and you are a bad mom.

It is fine for lunch, though.

Picture 12This is a potato that has been chopped up and baked.

You can never, ever serve it for breakfast. In fact, you are a bad mom if you even think about serving it for breakfast.

It is not a meal at all!

Why, this potato is so unhealthy, you should probably never eat it at all.


There. I hope that clears everything up.